Last Updated on 19 August 2016
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Trip Report to Cuba

09-11-2012 - 01-12-2012


Cuban Tody - Vinales - 2012-11-15 - 02 copy PBase

Cuban Tody, probably the cutest bird on Cuban soil.

General Information
This is a report on a trip to Cuba from November 9th to December 1st 2012. Besides my wife (Brenda Veen) and myself (Michel Veldt) there were two other participants: Tijmen van Doornik and Miranda Schuurman who initially came up with the plan and itinerary to make this trip.

The main goal of the trip was to see as many bird species (with a focus on the island's endemics) as possible, as well as taking loads of pictures of them whenever possible. Besides this a relatively large amount of time was reserved for some sightseeing and relaxing. One spectacular attraction of Cuba is the possibility to go scuba diving amidst Bull Sharks. Especially Tijmen and Miranda wanted to do this excursion and so we included the coastal area of St. Lucia in our itinerary.

Soplillar - Houses - 2012-11-20 - 02 copy PBase

Many people in Cuba, especially in more rural areas live in this kind of huts, although beatifully located they are all but luxurious...

As the island is very large and some of the birding areas quite remote most birders rely on a rental car to get them where they want to go, and so did we. Car rental is controlled by state-owned companies and prices are relatively high. Our rental was a Peugeot sedan from VIA car that held enough space to accomodate the four of us and our (loads of) luggage and photo/video equipment.

Red-legged Thrush - La Moka - 2012-11-12 - 02 copy PBase

The only endemic that we even found in down town Havanna: Red-legged Thrush.

Getting in and out of Cuba was fairly easy although we did encounter some struggles. When entering the country customs detected the two radios that we carried for communication purposes. Although we could keep them with us during our stay we had to sign a declaration that we would only use them inside our accommodations and not anywhere else, risking confiscation if we did. Also we had to proof us taking them home again at the end of our stay, requiring inspection and paperwork by customs upon our departure.

The outward journey was a whole different story: after the radios were checked and cleared by customs, some clever mind noticed a hard disk that we carried for storing our photographs. This posed an apparent problem to customs as it took us over one hour and seeing many different offices and persons (looking for a power supply as mine was stored in the suitcase that was heading for the plane already). After a thorough search which failed to come up with the right cable, and me explaining for the tenth time that only my photographs were stored on the device, they would let us clear customs. As well as the hard disk trouble they closely inspected our tripods, and even scanning them three times over, finally letting them through only after some lenghty discussions between them customs officials.

We used a variety of accomodations while travelling around including all-inclusive hotels, small rural fincas and Casa Particulares, the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast. Especially the latter we liked very much as the Cubans are an extremely friendly and hospitable bunch who always try to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Also the food at the casas was particularly good.

Among the best birds recorded during this trip were Gundlach's Hawk, Cuban Black Hawk, Plain Pigeon, Grey-fronted- and Blue-headed Quail-Dove, Cuban Parakeet, Bare-legged Owl, Greater Antillean Night-Jar, Bee Hummingbird, Fernandina's Flicker, Giant Kingbird, Cuban Palm Crow, Zapata Wren, Cuban Gnatcatcher, Cuban Solitaire, Olive-capped Warbler, Oriente Warbler, Red-shouldered Blackbird, Zapata Sparrow, Zapata Sparrow and Cuban Grassquit.

Bare-legged Owl - Najasa - 2012-11-26 - 01 copy PBase

Bare-legged- (or Cuban Screech-) Owl is difficult to find, usually a guide is needed to see one. This one was photographed near Finca La Belén.

Besides this we found a Kentucky Warbler at Zapata marsh, a Hooded Warbler at Soroa, Ring-billed Gulls at Caya Coco and a group of Sand Martins between Havanna and Vinales. All of which are listed as rare for Cuba.

Playa Larga - Zapata Swamp - 2012-11-20 - 01 2 copy PBase

Zapata Marsh, home to some of the best endemics Cuba has to offer.

At the end of the trip no less than 155 bird species were logged which is a good number for this time of year. In this report the names of each bird and of all important places we visited are typed in bold. This should make it easier to scan through the report for the information you’re after or skip the parts you are not interested in.

Food in Cuba is usually good, especially when enjoyed in the paladars (small privately owned restaurants, usually situated in the living quarters of ones private home) or at the casa particulares. Only in Finca La Belen the food was of rather bad quality but as the Najasa area is not visited by many tourist (other than birders) it's probably difficult to find an alternative here.

Rose-throated Parrot - Playa Larga - 2012-11-17 - 01 copy PBase

Rose-throated Parrot is a rather common Cuban endemic which can be found east of Havanna.

All photographs displayed are produced during this trip. For each photo details are included about what it depicts and where the picture is taken. All photographs produced during this trip can be found at the travel picture gallery. All pictures are copyrighted but we are happy to provide you with a high res copy upon request. All the major bird (and other) observations of this trip can also be found at Observado, a website where one can enter their nature-related sightings. Details include the location, number of birds seen and sometimes details of the particular sighting as well. All other observations recorded during various other trips can be found at Observado as well.

If any questions still remain after reading this report or if would like some help while you're planning a trip to Cuba yourself, please do not hesitate to contact us and we'll try to help you as much as possible. For future reference you may want to download this report in PDF format.

Guides in Cuba

As many of the best birdwatching areas in Cuba are well-known and readily accesible you may want to try and go birdwatching on your own. We used the services of a few guides which turned out te be good choices in all instances. Playa Larga is the only place you really need one as the area is large and acces to the protected area of the Zapata Swamp is restricted if you're not accompanied by a certified guide. We were guided by Angel de Zapata, the brother of the well-known and equally knowledgeable El Chino de Zapata (both can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

Angel found us many of the special and sought-after birds on offer in Playa Larga and surrounds. In return we found him a Kentucky Warbler, a new bird to his Cuban list.

In Vinales we were also guided by a local guide by the name of Julio Ceasar. As there seem to be two bird guides with the same name, make sure that you have the right guy. This Julio lives in Vinales town and onws a paladar (local restaurant) along the main street. We aranged for him at the visitor centre for the Vinales area just outside town, coming from the south. This Julio is a muscular black guy which at first sight does not seem the typical birdguide. His skills though were quite good (but not excellent) and he took us to some good spots and found us a few good birds (e.g. Black-faced Grassquit, Cuban Solitaire)

In Soroa while doing some road-side birding we were approached by Justo Arteaga Marquez ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) and who offered his services. He was very skilled as well and he took us on a morning walk around Las Terrazas. Despite his excellent knowledge and persistance in trying to find good birds (the quail-doves for example) we did not see a lot of goodies. Probably the bad weather had something to do with it.

In Najasa we were guided by Pedro Regalado, a friendly older man who has a tremendous amount of experience in many of the local birds in the Najasa area. He conducts research on Giant Kingbirds, Palm Crow and Cuban Parakeets and therefore knows every stake-out of these species. He guided us for one morning only but did a very good job. Pedro's residence can be found along the Najasa-El Pilar road, about half way between the two towns.

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Road-side sign in front of Pedro Regalado's residence.

 Itinerary

 09 Nov - Flight Amsterdam - Varadero. Transfer to hotel Telegrafo in Havanna

 10-11 Nov - Sightseeing in Havanna

 12 Nov - Pickup rental car and drive to Vinales. Stay at Villa Jorge and Ana Luisa

 13- 14 Nov - Birding at Vinales and La Guirra

 15 Nov - Drive to Las Terrazas, Stay at Eco Lodge La Moca

 16 Nov - Birding at Soroa and las Terrazas

 17 Nov - Drive to Playa Larga. Stay at Hostel Mayito

 18-19 Nov - Birding at Playa Larga area, including Zapata swamp

 20 Nov - Drive to Guajimico (east of Trinidad). Stay at Villa Guajimico

 21 Nov - Birding at Topes de Collantes and drive to Santa Clara. Stay at Casa Elsa Maria Guerra

 22 Nov - Sightseeing at Santa Clara

 23 Nov - Drive to Caya Coco, stay at all inclusive Trip Caya Coco

 24 Nov - Birding at Caya Guillermo, Caya Paredon Grande and Caya Coco.

 25 Nov - Drive to Camaguey / Najasa. Stay at Finca La Belen

 26 Nov - Early morning birding at El Pilar area and drive to Santa Lucia. Stay at Brisas Santa Lucia

 27-29 Nov - relaxing, diving with Bullsharks and some birding / photographing at ponds east of St. Lucia.

 30 Nov - 1 Dec - Flight Holguin Amsterdam

For logistic reasons we dicided not to visit Parque Nacional Peninsula de Gunanahacabibes in the far west of the island. Although it holds many of the endemics that can be found at the Zapata marsh it was hard to incorporate this in our schedule, which was loaded already.

Transportation and getting around

The roads in Cuba are quite good, although in many areas large potholes have to be avoided if you don't want to risk having problems with your rental car. Especially highways are quite good, being 3 lanes either way and with not too much damage to the road surface. Most of the time no, or hardly visible, markings are present.

Once you get off the highway road conditions can be much worse, especially in less touristy parts of the country. Sometimes it's impossible to drive at speeds higher than 15 km p/h because of the road condition. The worst road we encountered was the one between Najasa and El Pilar with the road coming up to Vinales from the south ranking as second "best". Later we learned that the Najase road was damaged by hurricane Sandy a few months before and not yet repaired.

Aguada de Pasajeros - Onderweg - 2012-11-19 - 10 copy PBase

Horse carriages are one of the main means of transportation in Cuba.

As the vast majority of the Cuban people can't afford their own car (horse carriages are used by many), traffic is usually restricted to a very limited number of vehicles. Hitchhiking is the common way of transportation for the locals and many people are encountered walking on the road (even highways) at official designated hitchhiking spots. Some will even stand and stay in the middle of the road trying to force one to stop and take them along, This sometimes caused extremely dangerous situations and near car-person collisions in our case. The hitchhiking procedures are quite clear: anyone driving a vehicle carrying a yellow (state owned) or blue (person-owned) car is obliged to stop at all times at the designated hitchhiking spots, as long as this vehicle has any free seats.

Guanajay - Onderweg - 2012-11-14 - 07 copy PBase

You usually won't see this many cars at once on a Cuban highway.

For anyone driving a vehicle with a dark-red license plate (rental cars) you are not obliged to stop and take along anyone. Ofcourse you can stop, and many tourists do so. If you do stop and invite people to join you, make sure to have your eyes on your personal belongings as many tourists have been the victim of stealing while taking hitchhikers.

Use of dedicated GPS equipment for navigation or other purposes is prohibited in Cuba therefore no GPS units are available at the state owned car rental companies. The rules seem to be applied less strict nowadays it seems as most smart phones are equipped with GPS making enforcement (at least for foreigners visiting the country) near impossible.

Weather

Caribbean islands have a tendency to very nice weather and Cuba is no exception to that rule. The summer season usually sees temperatures between 25 and 35 degrees with sometimes high humidity, especially inland. Hurricane season is in summer to late autumn (from june to mid-november) and somtimes hit Cuba as hurricane Sandy did about three weeks before our visit. Especially in the Najasa and Playa Larga area evidence of this hurricane were still very obvious with roads being destructed and debris around everywere.

Rainy season ranges from july to mid-november and during our visit we did experience some rain but in only 1 or 2 cases did it last a few hours.

Safety

As Cuba is considered a less well-developed country one might expect criminality rates to be a bit higher than in the west but this may not be the case. The vast majority of the tourists visiting the country will never encounter any problems during their trip which makes Cuba one of the safer holiday destinations. Especially the large tourist-attracting destinations such as Caya Coco (to which access is gained over a toll "bridge" of over 25 kilometres long and to which Cuban natives are not allowed unless they are employed there) are extremely safe. When we picked up our rental car we were specifically instructed not to hand over the car keys anytime to anyone, not even the police. This may suggest that cartheft sometimes poses a problem.

While travelling in Cuba you will certainly encounter many people trying to sell you something. On more than one occasion did someone even stand in the middle of the road to make us stop the car. Quite annoyingly it frequently happens that people along the road try to get your attention and send you the wrong way, usually to try and direct you to a casa particulare and make money out of you. This happened in many places and seems to be common practice in many areas visited by tourists. However, every time we asked for directions we always got a correct and friendly answer.

Currency
The monetary system in Cuba is quite complex as two currencies are in place, both of which are used in parallel.

One is the CUC or Cuban convertible Peso which is used for tourists although tourists are allowed to use both currencies. At the time of writing (Aug 2013) 10 Euro is about equal to 305 CUC.

The "real" national currency is the CUP or Cuban Peso which is used by Cuban natives. At the time of writing this, 10 Euro is about equal to 13,30 CUP. As both currencies are used together it's always a challenge to see if you get the right change for your CUC (Cuban Pesos are much less value for money) but we never had any problems with it.

For tourists all prices are in CUC so usually one does not have to worry about the price of the product. In some cases prices are in CUC for tourists but for Cubans the same price is in CUP. We tried to find out how this works exactly but that still remains unclear.

Literature

As we prepared for this trip many of the information we got from the internet and befriended Dutch birders that provided us with lots of information and maps to the countries endemic species. As we found information in so many places it's impossible to list them all. Epecially the large amount of information we got from Peter van Scheepen (including many hand drawn maps from the hand of Henk Hendriks) gave us such specific information to which places to visit that without them some birds would not have been on the list.

Cuban endemics

Cuba hosts just over 40 endemic species of which many can be seen in many places including Great Lizard Cuckoo, Cuban Pygmy-Owl, Cuban Emerald, Cuban Trogon, Cuban Tody, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Green Woodpecker, Cuban Pewee, Cuban Blackbird and Greater Antillean Grackle.

Most other endemics are more localised or just difficult to find at many places and more easy in a few. Cuban Kite is one of those endemics as only between 50 and 250 specimens still remain in the far east of the island between Moa and Baracoa. As Cuba is fairly large and our itinerary already covered quite some distance plus chances of seeing it are basically zero we decided not to visit this area.

Cuban Emerald - Las Terrazas - 2012-11-16 - 04 copy PBase

One of two Cuban endemic hummingbirds: Cuban Emerald.

The same basically goes for Zapata Rail of which only extremely few visual sightings are done. In early spring, when water levels decrease significantly one has a very slim chance of seeing one although hearing it is very possible. The most recent sighting for our guide Angel was seven years ago. According to Angel he's seen this holy grail only seven times in over 30 years of leading groups through the extensive Zapata marshes.  As we visited Cuba in november (wrong time for both water levels and vocal activity) we did put some but not much effort in locating them. Ofcourse we failed.

Most of the endemics mentioned first in this paragraph will not bementioned again in the rest of the report as they should not be a problem to find on any typical visit to the island.

Food & Accomodation

Generally speaking the accomodations in Cuba are of acceptable  to good quality compared to European standards. As we stayed in different kind of accomodations, ranging from casa particulares to 4+ star all inclusive hotels we got quite a good idea of what one could expect. Especially the casa particulares made a big impression on us and especially Hostel Moyito in Playa Larga. When travelling to Cuba be sure to try as many of the palladars (privately owned restaurants, often situated in one's private houses) as you can. Often the food is much better and prices ranging from 2 - 7 euros for a meal including starter and beverages. Palladars are found in almost every street and many times we were approached by the owner looking for new costumers. When staying in a casa particular you're actually also having dinner in a palladar and will not be disappointed by the quality (and abundance) of each meal.

Below all accomodations are discussed including links to their respective websites.

Hotel Telegrafo, Havanna

An excellent hotel right in downtown Havanna. The hotel is within walking distance of many of the well known tourist spots like the Capitolio and the War museum. The hotel serves a decent breakfast and diner is supposedly good too but we didn't try it. Instead we went for a palladar right across the street and the pizza restaurant right next door of the hotel.

Havanna - Hotel Telegrafo - 2012-11-10 - 04 copy PBase

Casa Jorge & Ana Luisa, Vinales

The first casa particular we stayed in and maybe one of the best. Ana Luisa and her husband like to make their guests feel at home and have no problem serving breakfast extremely early which is convenient for birders wanting to make an early start. For diner, choises are between different kinds of meat, fish or vegetarian and each meal is served with a variety of vegetables, fruits and drinks (usually some fruity juice). All in tremendous amounts and very tastefull. The rooms are equipped with air conditioning and a fridge which is filled with soda or beer of your choice.

Ecolodge La Moca, Las Terrazas

The "Ecolodge" part in the name of this accomodation is somewhat doubtfull as it seems to be used largely for bigger tourist groups and does not seem to do a lot to support or educate (about) the environment. Nevertheless it is well-situated for exploration of the Soroa/Las Terrazas area at least from a birder's point of view. Rooms are spacious although somewhat old-fashioned. As with other accomodation the food served is OK, although not outstanding in any way. Menu choices for lunch are quite good but slightly less so for diner.

Las Terrazas Accomodation - 2012-11-18 - 01 copy PBase

Hostel Mayito, Playa Larga

No doubt the best casa particular we stayed in with the owners putting in every effort to make their guests feel at home. For diner we were served a variety of dishes including a selection of sandwiches and even fish or lobster. Diner had some of the same options to choose from but added a variety of meat dishes and sandwiches as well. As with Casa Jorge & Ana Louisa it was no problem to have breakfast extremely early.

One night, a full Moyito making (and drinking) workshop was organized together with some of the other guests. Not only the four of us but the whole Mayito family enjoyed this evening very much.

This casa exhibits at least three double rooms with an excellent view over the Atlantic Ocean some 200 metres away. There is even a sun roof for one that feels the need to tan up a little while staying at Playa Larga.

Villa Guajimico, Guajimico

Although the location of this accomodation was excellent it lacked a real spirit, maybe due to the presence of few other guests. Diner at the Villa Guajimico restaurant was not too good, neither was the breakfast. We considered ourselves lucky to have found an excellent restaurant at Trinidad, some 40 kilometres further.

Guajimico - Accomodatie - 2012-11-22 - 02 copy PBase

Casa Elsa Maria Guerra, Santa Clara

Operated by two elderly women this casa is located right in the centre of Santa Clara as do many other small and very charming casa particulares. Both rooms were in traditional Cuban style and rather small but cosy. Again having breakfeast before the break of day was no problemo and dinner was outstanding.

Tryp Caya Coco, Caya Coco

Not quite the same style as the friendly-looking casa particulares, Tryp Caya Coco resort is more of the large and family-orientated kind. The all-inclusive formula is just that and even includes many cocktails and other alcoholic beverages. During either breakfast, lunch or dinner one can choose from different style restaurants, either a la carte or buffet. The resort's location right at the beach made combining birding and relaxing very easy. Maybe Tryp Caya Coco is not the kind of accomodation a typical birder would choose but as the area holds some interesting species and no other form of accommodation is available one is almost obligated to stay in one of the large resorts here if seeing any of them birds is key. Another option is to book a (much cheaper) accommodation at the town of Moron on the mainland and cross the 25 km long "bridge" every day. Driving from Moron to the nearest hotel strip at Caya Coco takes about 45 minutes. Reaching the better birding spots will take at least another half hour or so.

Finca La Belen, El Pilar

Probably the most basic accommodation we stayed at during the trip. First of all Finca la Belen's location in the middle of the Belen National Park is very scenic and the birding pretty ok with Giant Kingbird sometimes even flying around the camp grounds itself. The other species to look for here is Cuban Palm Crow which is declining but still rather easy to find. The dinner that we were served on the first night of our stay was awful to be honest..

Brisas St Lucia, Santa Lucia

At Brisas St Lucia we spent our last three nights doing not too much but relaxing, a little birding and having the possibility to go scuba diving amongst Bull Sharks which is very impressive. Brisas is also an all-inclusive resort but much smaller and therefore more appealing than its congener at Caya Coco.

Sites visited

Below all important sites we visited are described and discussed. For all sites usually only the species are mentioned that we only saw at 6 sites/occasions or less. This does not necessarily mean that those birds are among the most rare or sought-after. It just gives an impression of how commonly that species is encountered. If a species is a target bird we tried to give it extra attention as that particular bird may only, or most reliably, be found at that particular site. All recorded sightings can be found in the trip list and Observado.org.


Havanna

The first two day of this trip were spent in downtown Havanna, enjoying some of the most well known tourist attractions as well as the decaying buildings which are actually very charming and make up for a large part of the great atmosphere. Had a walk along the Malecon, and visited the war museum, Capitolio (outside only as they were in the middle of reconstruction). Not much birds can be seen in Havanna but the first endemics were found: Antillean Palm-Swift and Red-legged Thrush. Also some Palm Warbler, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Caspian and Royal Tern and the only Merlin of the trip were seen. Peregrine was hunting pigeons off the Capitolio dome.

Travelling west out of Havanna along highway A4 are a few quite large lakes packed with wintering ducks and coots. In two visits we found 100 Ring-neked Duck, 2000 Lesser Scaup, 500 Ruddy Duck, 50 Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, 250 American Coot, Spotted Sandpiper, White-winged Dove and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird.


Vinales

Some 150 kilometres east of Havanna is Vinales, right in the heart of the tobacco plantations, producing one of the most well known exported products of the island. Vinales is home to some of the best pristine forest in Cuba and therefore some good birds are found here. In addition Vinales is not too far from La Guira to the east, which is another very good spot.

In Vinales we were guided by Julio Cesar, mentioned before in this report. He brought us to one of the best birding spots in Vinales National Park 15 km west of Vinales town. At this location a gated fence is found at the northern side of the road giving acces to a path, first leading to a small open spot, then into the forest, farther north, becoming inaccessible quite soon. Another path goes east, parallel to the road, first some 3-400 metres through forest, then coming to a forest clearing.

Viales - National Park - 2012-11-16 - 01 copy PBase

Sign along the road near the entrance gate to the area described in this paragraph.

Julio made us wait patiently at the clearings with more and more birds coming into view as the sun progressed: Broad-winged- and Red-tailed Hawk, Plain Pigeon, Zenaida Dove, Cuban Pygmy Owl (although heard-only), Antillean Palm-Swift, Grey Kingbird, La Sagra's Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Solitaire, Ovenbird, Yellow-headed Warbler, Tawny-shoulderd Blackbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Bullfinch (many of them are kept in cages as well), Cuban Grassquit and Western Strip-headed Tanager.

Julio knows his way around the Vinales birds and their sounds and had no trouble finding us good birds. Besides a good birding guide he also likes to talk about other things than birds. Driving back Julio told us many interesting tales about living in Cuba which we'll remember for years to come.


La Guira (Hacienda Cortina)

This outstanding site is located north of La Guira town but acces is gained along road 371 about halfway between Entronque de Herradura and La Palma. The entrance is recognisable by an ancient looking structure with two towers. The road entering the park first goes along a few buildings but then into a large area of clearings and forest including pines. These pines are home to Olive-capped Warbler for which La Guirra is an important place as they are failry easy to find here.

La Guira - Birding - 2012-11-15 - 01 copy PBase

The entrance towers of La Hacienda Cortina / La Guira National park.

With only a few turnoffs getting lost is almost impossible here and birds along the road were sometimes abundant. We birded La Guira in the morning finding ourselves Plain Pigeon, White-winged- and Ruddy Quail-Dove, Antillean Palm Swfit, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Solitaire, Tennessee-, Magnolia-, Black-throated Green- and Yellow-headed Warbler, Tawny-shouldered Blackbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cuban Bullfinch, Summer Tanager, Rosebreasted Grosbeak and Western Stripe-headed Tanager.


Soroa and surrounds

Soroa has many good places to visit but we only visited a few. Staying at Las Terrezas was a good choice although some spots near Soroa itself are some 20 kilometres away.

While birding the road west of Las Terrazas we were approached by Justo Arteaga Marquez who offered to take us along a birding morning, not for free ofcourse. In fact he was the most expensive guide we hired, although he was not really expensive; around 20 Euros for about 4 hours of birding. Justo took us out into the forest south-east of La Moca ecolodge trying to find us some Quail-Doves which he did, although Blue-headed Quail-Dove kept eluding us.

Cuban Trogon - Soplillar - 2012-11-18 - 01 copy PBase

Cuban Trogon is one of the most common endemics in Cuba and can be seen in most parts of the island.

While conditions were very poor that morning with lots of rain and no sunshine, Justo kept pushing on to find us some good birds, which kind of failed despite his best efforts. Birds found on this foottrip: Grey-fronted- and Ruddy Quail-Dove, La Sagra's Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Cuban Vireo, Cuban Solitaire, Cape May- and Worm-eating Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Cuban Bullfinch, Cuban Grassquit and Western Striped-headed Tanager.


Ecolodge La Moca Gardens

If you have some free time to kill while staying at La Moca one could venture out to the lodge's gardens and also the road just outside the property. Many North American warbler species can be found and also some of Cuba's endemics occur. Most easy to find were probably Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireo, Cuban Emerald, Northern Flicker, La Sagra's Flycatcher, Cuban Vireo, Yellow-headed Warbler, Cuban Oriole, Cuban Grassquit, Cuban Bullfinch and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. A search in the evening produced Cuban Pygmy-Owl which posed well in the spotlights for us.

White-eyed Vireo - Las Terrazas - 2012-11-16 - 06 copy PBase

White-eyed Vireo in the gardens of La Moca eco lodge.


Hotel Villa Soroa

This hotel is mentioned in some reports as being a good place for birdwatching, amongst others Stygian and Cuban Pygmy-Owl should reside here. No luck to us however as the only birds we saw here were common North American warblers.


Soroa forest

Just across the road from the Hotel Villa Soroa, about 200 metres south is a track into the forest which is said to be good for birding as well. Among others all Quail-Doves can befound here. Sadly we did not have any luck here either on both occasions we paid it a visit. Due to rather heavy rains the track was quite slippery and at some places very steep making it an unpleasant venture. It's highly possible to see some good birds here as we found Cuban Solitaire, Grey-fronted Quail-Dove, Cuban Oriole, Louisiana Waterthrush and Western Stripe-headed Tanager on both visits.


Playa Larga and surrounds

Playa Larga and the area surrounding it is without any doubt the most endemics-packed place in Cuba. No birder's birding holiday could do without as many of the most sought-after endemics can only, or most reliably, found here. Covering all species requires visiting a few different places. One of which is the Zapata marsh which is only possible when accompanied by a certified guide. As mentioned earlier on in this report we hired Angel de Zapata, a calm and friendly man with extensive experience and impressive knowledge about the Playa Larga area and where to go to find the key species.

Red-shouldered Blackbird - Playa Larga - 2012-11-19 - 10 copy PBase

Playa Larga is home to many endemics, Red-shouldered Blackbird (a young bird) is most reliably found in the swamp area north of town.

We birded two full days with Angel, meaning birding full mornings and afternoons, stopping only at the hottest parts of the day as bird activity is at its lowest. Angel took us to many of the spots described in various reports in order to find us all that needs to be seen in the Playa Large area including San Anodnis, Soplillar and ofcourse Zapata Swamp.


- San Andonis, the Sandonis area mainly consists of mangrove forest which is one of the best places to find the quail-doves. Many trails go throug the forest and it's a matter of walking them untill you find the holy grail walking right in front of you. We found Grey-fronted, Blue-headed here. The spot is also good for Bee Hummingbird but during our stay could only be found at certain flowering trees. We found one singing male coming to a tree irregularly and only staying up high making views not very satisfying. Other birds found here included White-crowned Pigeon, Worm-eating Warbler and Kentucky Warbler, which was actually a new bird for Angel, making him very happy!

 Mosquitos were quite annoying here so make sure to bring insect repellant when visiting this site.

 Cuban Pygmy-Owl - Soplillar - 2012-11-20 - 04 copy PBase

Cuban Pygmy-Owl is common all over Cuba.


- Soplillar, is close to the previous site and therefore holds many of the same species. The mangrove forests are intersected with clearings making it a bit more divers than San Andonis. The location at the start of this paragraph is the exact place were we found a Cuban Martin and two Bee Hummingbirds, among many other birds. Soplillar also produced Grey-fronted- and Blue-headed Quail-Dove (the latter being the most shy and difficult to find species, there are however reports of a feeding spot at which they appear to be very confident) and Shiny Cowbird.

Angel took us to the location of an occupied nest of Gundlach's Hawk. Althought one of the birds was calling frequently only one of us was lucky enough to see it fly off, not to be found afterwards. Near the spot of the hawk we tried for West-Indian Whistling Duck but failed to find it. Cuban Black Hawk is seen in the Playa larga but is not common. One individual was at a stake-out each morning some km's south-east of playa Larga town. If you will not find it at Playa larga, you certainly will at Caya Coco where it's much more common.

Cuban Black Hawk - Caya Coco - 2012-11-24 - 06 copy PBase

Cuban Black Hawk can be found at Playa Larga but is more common at Caya Coco.

The last morning of our stay at Playa Larga we returned to the Soplillar site hoping to obtain some nice pictures of the Bee Hummingbirds, in which we succeeded.

Bee Hummingbird - Soplillar - 2012-11-20 - 13 copy PBase

Bee Hummer in winter plumage, obviously much more drab than a summer plumaged individual.


- Zapata Swamp, as said before this site is only accessible with a certified guide which is best to arrange in advance. Zapata Swamp holds one of the holiest grails in the birding world: Zapata Rail. As said before in the introduction section of this reports, it requires extreme luck to see one and this is only possible in spring when water levels are low and the birds are calling frequently. Hearing them is then is certainly possible though. Angel's last sighting of this enigmatic bird was seven years before and although we did try to find it we didn't put too much effort in it.

Zapata Sparrow - Playa Larga - 2012-11-19 - 03 copy PBase

Zapata Sparrow is easily attracted by tape luring, coming way closer than the minimum foscussing distance of our lens.

Zapata Wren and Zapata Sparrow are two species that certainly make up good reasons to visit the area as they can't be seen outside the swamp. The former species can be difficult to find at times and mutiple visits may be required, however we succeeded in finding one at the first (and only) visit which showed very well. Zapata Sparrow can also be found at Caya Coco, be aware though that these two belong to different sub-species which could well be split in a few years.

 

Zapata Wren - Playa Larga - 2012-11-19 - 01 copy PBase

Zapata Wren, the "less-holy-grail" of the Zapata Swamp.

Zapata is mainly visited for the three Zapata species (rail, sparrow and wren), having seen the sparrow and wren we decided to leave the Zapata marsh and mainly go look for Red-shouldered Blackbird and Fernandina's Flicker, two other endemics to Cuba. The former is a specialty of the Zapata Marsh as well, the flicker should be found at other sites east of havanna but we failed to do so.

During our stay at Zapata marsh many other birds were recorded which included Black-crowned Night-Heron, Broad-winged Hawk, Wilson's Snipe, White-crowned Pigeon, Grey Kingbird, Greater Antilean Nighthawk (on the tv-antenna of Casa Mayito!), Kentucky Warbler, Cave Swallow, Worm-eating Warbler, Shiny Cowbird and Baltimore Oriole.

Greater Antillean Nightjar - Playa Larga - 2012-11-19 - 03 copy PBase

 This Greater Antillean Nightjar surprised us during dinner, flying around and landing time and again on the tv-antenna.


Caya Coco / Cayo Paredon Grande

For combining relaxing with birding this spot (including the next site Caya Guillermo) is an excellent destination. Caya Coco is lined with big hotels and construction of new and even more luxurious ones is still ongoing. Still many areas exist with pritine habitat and some good birds can be found like Zapata Sparrow which is a different subspecies from the one that occurs in the Zapata Marsh. Thick-billed Vireo and Bahama Mockingbird can both be found which are caribbean endemics and can be found on other islands in the caribbean as well. Although we met some Canadian birders who saw both of them we were unable to find them.

Cuban Gnatcatcher - Caya Paredon Grande - 2012-11-23 - 14 copy PBase

Cuban Gnatcatcher is easy to find near the lighthouse at Cayo Paredon Grande.

Cuban Gnatcatcher however is fairly common in the shrubs east of the lighthouse at Caya Paredon Grande, as is Oriente Warbler. Cuban Black Hawk can be seen without trouble and is easier here than it is in the Playa Larga area. Many North American warblers roam the mangroves and shrubs, the most notable ones being Prairie Warbler, Cape May Warbler and Summer Tanager. Other interesting species included Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull and Grey Kingbird.

A White-tailed Deer at Cayo Paredon Grande was the only mammal recorded during this trip.

Great Lizard Cuckoo - Caya Coco - 2012-11-23 - 07 copy PBase

Caya Coco is a very good place to find Great Lizard Cuckoo out in the open as it often fourages alongside roadside fields.


Cayo Guillermo

Being close to the other two "Cayo's" mentioned before many of the species encountered at Caya Guillermo are the same. The main attraction here, besides the few Cuban endemics, is Bahama mockingbird as it doesn't seem to feel at home at Coco or Paredon Grande. Cayo Guillermo holds some more mudflats and puddles and therefore has a bit more species on offer. Cuban Black Hawk and Oriente Warbler were found here as well, and again without much effort. Other birds included shorebirds and North American warblers. The most notable species here: Roseate Spoonbill, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Semi-palmated Plover, Wilson's Snipe, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Grey Kingbird, Magnolia-, Cape May-, Myrtle- and Prairie Warbler, Louisiana- and Northern Waterthrush and Baltimore Oriole.

 

La Belén / Najasa area

Two species can be found only near Finca La Belén near Najasa and Pedro Regalado is the best man in the area to find them. Pedro conducts research on both Cuban Palm Crow (which can be found quite easily without Pedro's help by it's ditinctive call) and Giant Kingbird. The latter species is much more restricted and seeing them reliably without a guide may be impossible if they are not nesting at Finca La Belén. Cuban Parakeet was seen at various locations but can be seen farther east as well. A very cooperative Plain Pigeon was found sitting out in the open, previous sightings were either of birds flying by or briefly perched in a far away tree.

Birding the entrance road to Finca La Belén, although very scenic, did not deliver Giant Kingbird but an unexpected Barn Owl out in broad daylight was a nice surprise as were the Cuban Pygmy Owls and very cooperative Cuban Tody.

American Kestrel - Vinales - 2012-11-14 - 08 copy PBase

The Cuban form of American Kestrel, quite different from the birds farther north.

Probably most unexpected was a Bare-legged Owl that we tried for in an area were most of the suitable trees (dead palms) were taken down by hurrican Sandy a few months before. Pedro had been unable to find them ever since at a previous location but sure enough the first tree we checked right next to the old spot produced a very nice but brief sighting of this very difficult species!


St Lucia

Birding in St Lucia was not the number one priority in St Lucia as we mainly went there to go diving with Bullsharks (which succeeded very well). Birding was only done early morning and late afternoon, sunbathing and doing some scuba diving in between. No new birds were added to the trip list instead we took our time photographing some of them. Endemics seen here include the more common ones: Cuban Emerald, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Blackbird, Greater Antillean Grackle and Cuban Bullfinch as well as Cuban Iguana which has a rather implressive appearance.

Cuban Iguana - Santa Lucia - 2012-11-29 - 03 copy PBase

Cuban Iguana at St Lucia.